I do not want this piece of writing to be unapproachable. At the same time, I am so fed up with so many contemporary female writers—with females in general, myself included—who fear coming off as untouchable, and so hide their weaknesses or broach them from a safe distance. Certainly, plenty of women writers make nods towards the banal hardships involved in growing up female. These women tend to approach that subject from a safe, non-embarrassing distance; they take a healthy dose of “perspective” in their writing: either cutting lines of anxiety with self-deprecating humor, or speaking from the height of wisdom—they have suffered, but risen from the mire without a mark. And many women choose to dodge the subject, either writing in the voice of a male protagonist or simply in a manner that skirts the female experience. This option, like the former two, is fine. Pleasant to read and face-saving and not embarrassing to the author or her audience. Properly post-feminist, if post-feminism means that we female artists have overcome the anxieties involved in confronting our femaleness…
I am tired of all that.
This is what I want: female artists, please risk embarrassing yourself, put on your ugliest face, climb inside your mind at its worst. I want writing, art, communication among females that makes me cringe. I’m talking about hatred of our bodies, dependence on men and mirrors, passivity…all those generic “un-liberated woman” traits that are not supposed to apply to us intelligent 21st century girls and women who “know better” than to fall into these traps. let’s talk about all of it!
Indoctrination from an age before we even realized we were being indoctrinated into a world that taught us that we are bodies leaves stains. Stains that are worth talking about. And the shame and anxiety that come with the feeling that we should “know better” make the whole matter worse—“knowing better” doesn’t help. It’s worth very little.
You might ask, What’s wrong with wanting to present the best version of me to the world? Shouldn’t we be producing strong female characters to serve as role models? And, you know, point taken. But here’s another point: our society still teaches us women and girls to stew in our immanence. In our being, rather than our acting and creating. Reading books by women who act like they’ve transcended the traps that society has laid for us can leave a girl feeling alienated and ashamed. This is precisely why—despite my initial revulsion—I now love Mary Gaitskill so much: not only could I find comfort in reading about females who suffered from the same shameful habits as me, but I found a role model in the author: by diving deep and unapologetically into the psychologies of her protagonists, Gaitskill writes in a new and explosive manner that is truly inspiring.
De Beauvoir contends that a woman’s greatest concern is to please, and this is particularly true of the woman writer. She writes that “the writer who is original, as long as he is not dead, is always scandalous; what is new disturbs and antagonizes”; and that the hypothetical women writer, who is still trying to write for a masculine world, “watches her manners, she does not dare to irritate, explore, explode.” In mainstream fiction, this is still too true.
Wasting the limited hours that you have on this earth to explore and explode the depths of your imagination to worrying about what he (or she!) would think is not going to leave you with sufficient time to explore or explode. Perhaps you fear that nobody wants to hear about the crippling and shameful thinking that bores holes in your head when you try to write down what it is like to be confronted with weak, female thoughts in an age where we have supposedly come so far that we no longer even need feminism; maybe you do not want the reaction from the male-controlled world to be polite silence, like a witness to a train wreck every time; you are fed up with the I-can’t-comment-on-this- because-it-is-so-far-from-my-experience line. It is a frustrating reaction, yes, but better it be them who are forced to grapple with understanding. Listen, girl: you have the advantage here. There are relatively few contemporary female writers that have submerged themselves in all that hideousness that crosses and cripples the female mind. Most women are still too ashamed to discuss these bleak thoughts that we should not be having. For this reason, write it. Write it, and put it out there. Make art about your shame! Transform your anger into something shocking! Create! And if you write in a manner that is not dried-up and that employs an appropriate dose of self-deprecation, then you are sure to embarrass and disturb and antagonize your readers; you are certain to explode. And if explosion does not entice you, then at the very least you might perform an unintentional act of goodwill: you might make some young woman who is drowning in her very female anxiety feel a tad better. Join her: risk embarrassing yourself, put on your ugliest face, climb inside your mind at its worst—and perhaps she will find in you a confidante; perhaps she will feel a little less lonesome, a little less ashamed. ♦
Anna McConnell travels around the USA with her partner Nigh, and currently works at an organic goat farm in New Mexico. She’s from New York City, and studied philosophy and Arabic at the University of Chicago.
A version of this article first appeared on The Hypocrite Reader.